|WHAT||Michigan vs Minnesota|
Ann Arbor, MI
|WHEN||3:30 PM Eastern
October 5th, 2013
|THE LINE||M -20|
|TELEVISION||ABC/ESPN2 reverse mirror|
|WEATHER||mostly cloudy, high 70s, scattered showers|
100% confidence in creepy ass subtext.
It was strongly suspected that Minnesota was pretty bad at football this year despite their 4-0 start since they'd gotten outgained by 99 yards against UNLV and 62 yards against San Jose State in wins that looked like blowouts but were far from that. Then the Gophers grind out 165 yards of offense against Iowa while giving up 464 in a win that only Kirk Ferentz could keep as close as 23-7. Minnesota is terrible at football.
Dammit. This is going to be a gut-wrencher.
Run Offense vs Minnesota
I've got 99 problems and Ra'Shede Hageman is all of them
Fitzgerald Toussaint got on track to the tune of 120 yards against UConn, but that was nowhere near enough to prevent Michigan from shaking up its offensive line. Jack Miller exits, Graham Glasgow slides over to center, and Chris Bryant makes his first start tomorrow. This will probably help, as Miller's been not so good for most of this year; it's a rough introduction to college football to get Ra'shede Hageman in your first start.
Maybe. UNLV's pistol-oriented attack had a lot of success on the ground in the opener, and Iowa just mashed them for 246 yards on 45 carries. Shutting down NMSU, WIU, and SJSU in the interim doesn't mean much. Iowa's Mark Weisman is a definitively between-the tackles runner who averaged 6.1 yards a pop with a long of 19, so there's something wrong in the Gopher rush defense.
What that might be:
The problem for Minnesota is their small, undisciplined defensive ends. Starters Michael Amaefula and Theiran Cockran weigh in at 244 and 238 pounds, respectively, and attempt to make up for this by firing upfield on most snaps.
Adding to the issues was near-constant use of man coverage, which combined with the lack of gap discipline from the ends to open up a Rudock touchdown scramble early and another long scramble late on which Rudock casually strolled by Gopher defenders who weren't even looking at him. I can't believe it didn't hit youtube. It was hilarious. Devin Gardner is going to average 10 yards a carry on scrambles.
The more conventional run game is a mystery with the line switch. Can Michigan still run the stretch? Do they even want to anymore? Can Michigan move Hageman with doubles on the inside zone? Can they exploit the light ends and general lack of DB support created by frequent man to man coverage? I don't know!
I do think Michigan should try some of those down G power runs on which the playside guard pulls and you try to hit it up outside of the end quickly. This is do or die for the idea that tight end blocking can be an asset against literally anyone in the league; if AJ Williams doesn't get some face-mashing in Saturday, he's not going to do it against anyone.
Key Matchup: Bryant and Glasgow and Kalis versus Hageman and company. For this game the TEs might be more of a factor. For the season, watching how the new-look interior OL copes against Minnesota's strength is incredibly important.
[Hit THE JUMP for obligatory Gardner turnover assumptions.]
Pass Offense vs Minnesota
While it doesn't seem like Minnesota is any good at this either, we would be remiss to not start this section with the grim fact that Devin Gardner is averaging two interceptions a game and has not had a turnover-free start in nine attempts. He was personally responsible for three against UConn and four against Akron, turning uninspiring wins into seat-of-your-pants terror extravaganzas. Until such point as he does not do this for a while, it has to be assumed that he'll set a drive or two on fire per game. And give the other team seven points. At least.
That out of the way, Minnesota has been shredded in its last two outings in this department. Jake Rudock completed 60% of his passes for 8.7 YPA; SJSU's David Fales had 439 yards on 35 attempts—a whopping 12.5 YPA. Minnesota has struggled to get to the quarterback, with no sacks in those two games and just six on the year. Those defensive ends flying upfield have done so to little effect, and Hageman's trying but he's just got the one sack on the year after six a year ago.
The Gophers are down starting cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who tore his ACL in the NMSU game. As always, talent-light teams like Minnesota are thinnest in the defensive backfield and injuries quickly get into the slow or painfully inexperienced backups. In Minnesota's case, it's slow:
Wells led the secondary with 74 tackles last season while starting 13 games at safety. He still needs time to adjust to a different position, but Kill called Wells a very physical player with playmaking ability.
With hardly any depth at LB and inexperienced OLBs, Drew Dileo and Devin Funchess could find a lot of production underneath, especially if the Gophers stick with mostly man-to-man coverage. If Michigan goes 3/4 wide, there are going to be some exploitable matchups.
Minnesota should get Brock Vereen and Derrick Wells back from injury for this one, FWIW. Vereen, a safety, is their best defensive back; he was dinged in the Iowa game. He returned looking gimpy and gave up some uncharacteristically easy stuff. His health is still in some doubt.
Key matchup: Gardner versus himself.
Run Defense vs Minnesota
Minnesota needs Donnell Kirkwood back.
This section probably doesn't need the "run" in front of "defense": this is going to be the whole game for Mattison's unit. Minnesota has run 69% of the time this year and can't throw at all… but that's another section.
Minnesota may not be able to run at all, either. While they rolled up big numbers against their goofy nonconference schedule, those came to a screeching halt as soon as a real opponent appeared:
|@ New Mexico St.||43||342||7.95||3|
|San Jose St.||67||353||5.27||6|
Remove four sacks for 23 yards against the Hawkeyes and you have a still horrible 2.3 yards a pop. Even if the Iowa run defense is looking pretty good this year, that is a massive reality check. Ace:
The running game couldn't get anything going as the interior line consistently allowed immediate penetration up the gut. Despite this, the Gophers continued to try and run up the middle and rarely attempted to get to the edge, even though that worked out better for them—their two best runs came on an inverted veer give and an outside zone ("best" is a relative term, as these runs went for 12 and six yards).
Minnesota is a 'spread' option team in name only, featuring burly power runners at quarterback, burly power runners at tailback, and plenty of of two tight end sets. But they do use the gun and pistol frequently, rarely drop into the I except on short yardage, and run run run their quarterbacks, so… yeah. They're a power spread, as nonsensical as that term is.
The cast of characters:
- QBs Phillip Nelson and Mitch Leidner are the run-first quarterbacks, both more in the Tebow mold than the Denard mold. Nelson's faster, more likely to break something through the secondary (but still not particularly likely to); the 6'4", 235-pound freshman Leidner is a full-on tank.
- RB Donnell Kirkwood suffered an ankle injury early in the year and has gotten sparing time since. He's nearing full health; his availability for Michigan is still in doubt after he had three carries in the Iowa game.
- RBs David Cobb and Rodrick Williams Jr are the primary runners in Kirkwood's absence. Like the rest of the team they maintained excellent YPC averages until Iowa bashed them in the head. They're just guys. Kirkwood would be an upgrade if available.
And of course Plenty Of Tight Ends and A Mediocre At Best Line will feature. Like Michigan, Minnesota is struggling through youth at TE. Freshamn Maxx Williams is seeing a bunch of time. This will be painful for Minnesota.
Michigan, meanwhile, has no idea what kind of rushing defense it has after four straight outings against passing spreads to open the year. Lineups that got gashed a bit against Notre Dame featured no nose tackle and freshman SDEs playing on the interior and are not representative of what will happen when Michigan is actually in a 4-3 for most of the game.
This will be a first opportunity for Desmond Morgan, James Ross, and Quinton Washington to flash their ability to stuff up run games. How will they do? We've got little more than preseason projections to go on, which were good.
Key Matchup: Jibreel Black versus double teams. He's the obvious guy to test. If he can hold up, it's likely Minnesota endures another day like they did against Iowa. If not, it might be Willie Henry time.
Pass Defense vs Minnesota
I call it mini-Heisman. Phillip Nelson isn't getting it either.
A clearly dinged Phillip Nelson re-took the reins against the Hawkeyes and struggled to 5.6 YPA, 1 TD, and two INTs. His previous outings were hardly better. He acquired 99 yards on 22 attempts against UNLV with a pick and his good YPA against New Mexico State was almost entirely the product of one 48 yard completion on 15 attempts.
He's got two touchdowns against 4 interceptions this year, is completing barely over half his passes, and has a YPA of 5.9 against two completely horrible teams and Iowa. (He only had three attempts against Western Illinois and missed the SJSU game injured.) In 152 attempts last year he completed just under half his passes for 5.7 YPA, 8 TDs, and 8 INTs. He's young, sure, but he's not going to be old tomorrow.
For his part, freshman backup Mitch Leidner was 7/8 for 105 yards against FCS Western Illinois and 5/12 for 71 yards against SJSU. He's a mashing Tebow-like runner; he's played most of two games and has rushed twice as often as he's passed.
When the Gophers do put it up they spread it around. Derek Engel has 12 catches this year; a few guys have five or six.
Adding injuries to the pile of injury, Minnesota's given up nine sacks despite attempting only 86 passes; a combination of indecision at quarterback and an offensive line that can't pass block has been a yearlong problem.
Jinx of the week: Michigan should have no problem defending these guys. They've held a slate of similarly bad quarterbacks and Tommy Rees to numbers that are almost exactly Minnesota's season averages, and the pass rush has been iffy but came on against a UConn line that is probably around the Gophers' equal in pass protection.
Key Matchup: Michigan versus Large Annoying Mistake. Busting something on play action or allowing yet another guy to run down the field for a fly route is how Minnesota gets its numbers out of the depressing zone.
Minnesota's kicker has been reliable on chip shots in is career but looks like a guy who has barely any range. He's 2/3 in his career from outside 40 and hasn't hit a 50 yarder. He lost his job to the highly mediocre Jordan Wettstein midway through his sophomore year and watched Wettstein go 14/22 last year.
On the other hand, Peter Mortell is booming kicks 44 yards a pop and has not gotten too many returns on his face yet. Minnesota's punt returns are dangerous, averaging almost 15 yards on 8 opportunities. Michigan could get burned here.
As for Michigan, Matt Wile bounced back from two horrible performances against Notre Dame and Akron to average 42.4 yards an attempt against UConn. Hoke said he'd figured out whatever went wrong with his kicking guru; hopefully that extends into the future. Brendan Gibbons remains reliable; kick returns are increasing not worth mentioning; Michigan threw Drew Dileo out at punt return for the UConn game and was rewarded with good decisions and a long return on a ball 95% of returners would have fair caught or let bounce. Punt it to Dileo!
Key Matchup: YOU DO NOT LET THE BALL TOUCH YOU UNLESS YOU ARE THE DESIGNATED PUNT RETURNER AND THEN YOU CATCH THE BALL, NOT DROPPING IT, AND SO FORTH AND SO ON.
- First play: Devin Gardner throws an interception, intercepts a lateral from the intercepter, pitches it to Toussaint only to see that lateral intercepted, forces a fumble just before Minnesota scores on the fumbled lateral, recovers the ball, is harassed in the endzone, fears giving up a safety, and bends over to snap it directly to Hageman for the rare Altered Snap Trydown, which is worth 15 points and a free rabbit thanks to regulations on the books untouched since 1885.
- AJ Williams can't move these defensive ends.
- Jibreel Black is getting blown up by double teams.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Chris Bryant is the magic bean this line needs to torture a metaphor.
- Devin Gardner is shooting into a secondary that has their backs turned to him.
- Nose tackles destroy.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 5 (Baseline 5; –1 for Minnesota Is Terrible, +1 for WAIT A MINUTE MINNESOTA IS TERRIBLE, +1 for Michigan Will Be –8 In Turnover Margin, –1 for But Vegas Says We Should Win By Three Touchdowns, +1 for Oh Yeah Vegas Has Such A Good Handle On Michigan Games, –1 for 1.1 YPC Against Iowa Cumong Man, –1 for How Is Minnesota Going To Score?, +1 for OTHER Than Free Gardner Touchdown)
Desperate need to win level: 9 (Baseline 5; +1 for Jug!, +1 for We Want The Big Ten Championship, +1 for I Just Want To Not Panic About Playing A Bad Team Okay, +1 for Third Straight Stinker Means Really Bad Things, +1 for I Like Winning, Man, –1 for We're Not That Good So I Mean Does It Matter Spiritually)
Loss will cause me to... finally admit that Michigan is about as good as UConn.
Win will cause me to... WOO WE'RE GONNA WIN THIS HORRIBLE CONFERENCE
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
How does Minnesota score if they can't pass and can't run? Other than that thing, sure. I cede you that.
I just don't see how Iowa's defense is all of a sudden way better than they were last year, so much so that Michigan shouldn't be able to almost replicate what Iowa did. Minnesota will be better if only because that was probably their worst effort of the year… and this is going to net them very little in terms of points.
Meanwhile, Michigan should be able to get enough from Gardner's legs and their ability to throw for big chunks of yards—usually—to distance themselves. I would suggest that Michigan is probably not as turnover prone as they have been so far, but since whenever I do that I get punched in the face with the opposite, I'm taking a different tack.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Gardner turns it over four times. Shavodrick Beaver enters in the second half.
- Nose tackles, blinking in the light after being unearthed, turn out to be rather good at shutting down the Gopher run game. Michigan holds Minnesota under 3 yards a carry.
- Run game struggles alarmingly as Michigan cannot communicate effectively and Minnesota's DTs do work on the interior line.
- Michigan, 25-10.